Morality Without Gods

Evolution_MoralsA while back I wrote a series of posts on morality and I want to attempt to tie some things up as well as respond to some common things I see people say online about non-theistic morality (some of which came up in my post on meaning).  I’ve only scratched the surface on this subject so I’m sure some of the details are not quite right.

Different Meta-ethical Views

While it’s much more complicated, in general I like to categorize the different meta-ethical views into the following:

  1. Supernatural Moral Realism (one example is Divine Command Theory): the favorite position for the theist, although I’ve found it interesting that some theists reside in the other 3 categories (mainly the next one) usually in addition to this category.
  2. Non-Natural Moral Realism: some atheist philosophers believe that there are moral properties which exist necessarily somehow as brute facts of reality (kind of like the law of non-contradiction). Shelly Kagan, Erik Wielenberg, Russ Shafer-Landau (video lecture), Michael Martin, and Keith Parsons are just some atheists who have expressed this idea. In this clip atheist Shelly Kagan describes his own views:

    You can see the debate where this clip is taken from here.  I highly recommend this debate to anyone interested in the topic of morality as it relates to atheism.  Kagan’s 20 minute opening is especially well thought out.
    Richard Swinburne and Robert Merrihew Adams are examples of theists who agree that there are moral properties which exist apart from gods.
  3. Natural Moral Realism: what I like to call practical moral realism, although that’s probably not precise.  I’ll actually use a quote from a theist I met online to capture this:

    I can’t be the only one here who notices that the just world is a world where I can be happy whereas the unjust world is a world where I could only be miserable. If I’m treated unjustly, I’ll be unhappy; and if I’m stuck in a situation where I must behave unjustly in order to get by — I’ll be unhappy about that!

    The idea here is that there are moral truths that are “normative” (i.e. true for everyone) due to the fact that all humans share the same desire for contentment, and having values such as integrity and compassion help us realize that desire. Massimo Pigliucci, Richard Carrier (video lecture), Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, and Sam Harris are all atheists who fall in this camp (with variances among their views).

  4. Moral Anti-realism: the view that there are no objective moral values.  Nietzsche is commonly referenced in this category.  Some modern proponents are Sharon Street, Richard Joyce, and Michael Ruse.  It’s very rare to find theists in this category but there are a small percentage.

And these 2 diagrams show you that meta-ethics is even more complicated than I’ve made it out to be:

metaethics-flowchart-smaller metaethics

So Where Do I Stand?

I see all 4 options above as possibilities and I’m fine with all of them.  Personally, if there is a god or force or whatever that truly represents pure goodness and kindness (the parts that at least seem to be universal properties contained in that) then I’m all for it.  If it is a personal being then it’s more than welcome in my home for a cup of tea or whatever it likes to partake in.  I’d love to work with it to help make the world a better place to live in.  If living in my heart floats it’s boat then have at it.  I’d love for it to do kind things through me and make me a better, more loving and caring person.  It’s just that some versions of this god as described by the traditional monotheistic religions do not line up with what is commonly understood as goodness, and the world also seems to operate as if it is a godless one.

I explained here why non-natural moral realism seems more plausible to me than supernatural moral realism.  But if you forced me to bet on which of the 4 options is true I’d probably say it’s some mix of 3 and 4 which I sort of talked about here.  This seems most closely matched to Massimo Pigliucci’s views.

Now pick whatever meta-ethical viewpoint you want from the above list – it doesn’t matter which one represents reality to me. Either way genocide, slavery, an eternal hell, pedophilia, rape, etc. all go against my moral senses.  The moral sense can come from gods, rationality, or evolutionary factors, but again it doesn’t matter.  The moral sense is there and no matter what, there are pragmatic reasons for following them.

Common Objections

– Our moral senses cannot be explained without God

There seems to be some evidence against this.  Read this.

– Atheists have no right to make any claims about right or wrong

First of all, watch the video above again to see why this is misguided.  It may be a more valid objection to replace the word “atheists” with “moral anti-realists”.

PunchIf a moral anti-realist is being punched in the face for no reason at all, do you expect them to respond with “that’s cool, I don’t believe in objective morality, so if you want to punch me I have no criticism of it”?  Obviously, being in pain, they would have something to say about it.  Obviously they could say “that hurts”, and “I don’t like that” without contradicting their anti-realist stance.  However, If they said “that’s wrong” it would begin to sound contradictory to their beliefs.  I have a caveat here though – it’s not contradictory if by saying “that’s wrong” they simply mean that it’s wrong in the sense that the majority agrees with them that it’s wrong to cause pain.  Also could they say it is “unkind”?  I believe they could.  By the general definition that humans ascribe to the word “unkind” it fits without someone believing that there is some objective “unkindness” property set in place somewhere outside of human minds.  It just fits the definition that the vast majority of humans ascribe to the words “wrong” and “unkind”.  All words have some vagueness about them.  But I do empathize some when the moral realist begins to see a bit of a contradiction when moral anti-realists use the word “wrong”.

– Atheists are being fake when they criticize the Old Testament for it’s moral horrors (see this comment)

Again, for atheists who are moral realists this objection doesn’t make sense.  Brandon (who wrote the linked comment) mentioned Sam Harris, but Harris is a moral realist so it doesn’t really fit.  Brandon may not agree that Harris has a valid reason to be a realist but that is beside the point – if he is a realist he is not being fake.  If you’re unable to see how a meta-ethical viewpoint different from your own could have validity to it that’s fine, but just know that it won’t stop me from speaking against atrocities in the bible such as genocide and slavery.

Now the question does become more interesting for moral anti-realists.  But even an anti-realist may be humble enough to see that their view may be wrong and that morality really is objective.  If one was trying to evaluate the Christian worldview then in the process they would try to take on the viewpoint of objective morality. But then they become faced with the dilemma of these horrific passages which go so strongly against the moral senses of practically all human cultures.  So even an anti-realist can see how these passages go against the morality that the Christian worldview is trying to uphold. They could also feel that these passages are very clearly harmful to human society and that could go against their own desires for a better world.  Anti-realists are just as capable of having empathy as anyone else.

– Atheism make a conversation about morality impossible

Topics in morality are discussed many hours of every day in ethics courses at universities across the entire world, very often without appeal to gods.  Actually it can be more of a conversation stopper to simply say “this book that I believe is the truth is the sole authority of morality”.  If the other person doesn’t see the book as an authority the conversation is over.

An Offer

Lately the following has been a response to theists I’ve been giving to express my own feelings about this subject: I want life on earth for everyone to be as positive an experience as possible. It is simply a desire of mine and that desire would remain if there are moral truths that exist or not. I actually would like it if there were moral truths, and would even prefer there to be gods that existed that are somehow helping us in achieving this. I say that you and I should simply shake hands and make our best effort to work together to make our world a better place and if there are any gods that want to help out then I say “the more the merrier!”.

Where do you stand regarding objective morality?  Do you think you could place your views somewhere within the 4 listed above?

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2 Years of Blogging

2 years2 years ago today I wrote my first post on TruthIsElusive.  It was the first blog I ever owned, and I remember telling my wife my prediction that my blog wouldn’t last more than a month.  While I only write about 1 or 2 posts per month, this wasn’t where I thought I would be 2 years ago.  I never imagined having all the awesome conversations that I’ve had both on my blog as well as on the blogs that I read frequently.

I have given up on predicting how long I’ll be blogging.  There were a few times this year I thought I was going to wrap it up, but found that I still had an interest to keep it going.  I made an effort to re-organize my About Blog page in order to clear my head on the reasons I see to continue.  My main goal is to form proper conclusions about reality – and making this process public is a great way to refine that process by learning from others.  While it may seem to some like I’m just pontificating on my blog, I’m actually learning quite a bit through blogging.  I’ve especially appreciated all the great links I’ve gotten from so many to related material.  It should go without saying that corrections and differing viewpoints are always most welcomed on my blog, but if you’re gonna judge if I don’t see things your way then just keep in mind that I’m likely not going to learn much from you.

Thanks so much to all the people I’ve interacted with!  I’m looking forward to another great year!

Maybe There Are Gods

godsWrapping The Series Up

In this post I ended with this:

In my future posts I plan to give a few more reasons why I don’t believe in gods, will try to explain why proofs for gods aren’t very convincing to me, and will end with my personal opinion on the best approach theists should use to convince others of the existence of gods.

and this post is the final in the series where I’ll share my opinion on the best approach for theists to convince others.  I also mentioned several times along the way that I would share why I still wonder whether gods might exist, what would change my mind, and even share my own views of which formulations of that would make more sense to me if I were to change my mind.

The philosophical arguments for God’s existence are basically interesting questions or conundrums about existence that we really just don’t have the kind of information we need to form any conclusions about, so they didn’t help me before, during, and still after I was a Christian.  I can understand that others might find them helpful, but as I’ve explained they just aren’t convincing to me.

SerendipitySerendipity, Miracles, and Coincidence

Maybe you just happened to be thinking about religion that night just at the very same time that you turned on the telly and they were amazingly talking about Jainism.  Or perhaps you experienced a healing after being prayed for.  Everyone has these stories that seem to go beyond coincidence.  A lot of them aren’t too impressive, but every once in a while you’ll come across some that do seem surprising.  These are the things that make me wonder if there is any meaning or agency involved behind the scenes.

As far as serendipitous stories go, the most amazing one I’ve heard was from my wife’s grandfather.  He believes in a Taiwanese tribal god, and he was in the midst of bombings in World War II when he saw a shiny object on the ground.  He decided to walk over to get it and right as he went to pick it up a bomb exploded in the place that he had just moved from.  The shiny object ended up being a trinket with the symbol of the tribal god of his family on it.  He has other stories about why he believes in that Taiwanese god but that one in particular has always stuck with me.  While this causes me to wonder, it doesn’t cause me to believe that his god exists as I’m sure many people reading this wouldn’t be convinced either.  But if you are willing to toss away these miraculous stories from other religions why are you so quick at judging others for doubting your own?

So instead perhaps all these miracle stories could be studied by probability theorists, and perhaps a good case could be made for causation.  Doesn’t sound like an easy task but it would be certainly something I would be very interested in following up on.  My suggestion to anyone who does this however is to stay in the bounds of science, because people are starting to become more educated about pseudo-science, and while there will always be those that are convinced by that, I believe if current trends continue we will see credulity like that become less prevalent.

There are several issues with serendipity – first, these strange events also seem to happen even for the most mundane of things.  For example, several months ago I was teaching the playing card game “war” to my son and trying to teach him the concept of less than or greater than.  We went through maybe 6 or 7 rounds before I decided to tell him the rules that happen when the numbers match, and wouldn’t you know it the very next cards that showed up matched.  I tried to remember that example just for this post, and there are many other extremely mundane “coincidences” like that which I don’t even make a point to remember, some even stranger than that.  Should we really be making some conclusions based on these kind of events?  Is “coincidence” a valid / justified explanation for these events?

And some do believe that these rare events that some would call miracles are actually to be expected given natural probabilities.  I’ll likely write more about this in the future, but here’s a primer.

It’s also very clear that these events happen across all religions and across all cultures.  Given that, if I was to believe in a traditional monotheistic God then I can’t see picking the God of just one religion.  While I have a hard time seeing the traditional personal omni-god (POG) concept as probable, if I did return to that belief it would be a more universalist type of belief in a God who for some strange reason doesn’t seem to be a very good communicator yet is somehow trying to communicate with humans through all different religions.

Certainty

Another thing that should be avoided is this insistence on certainty.  When someone like Ray Comfort says that he knows that God exists as much as he knows that his wife exists, I believe a whole lot of people see through that, and are also pushed away by things like that.  It’s just way too oversold, and gives the appearance of a sneaky used car salesman.  Belief in the existence of gods should fall along the continuum of certainty levels just like any other belief we would take in life.  For example, while I usually take a multi-vitamin in the morning I’m not terribly convinced of its efficacy.  I’ve read different things regarding vitamins, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of consensus.  So I don’t always take them, and I certainly wouldn’t go around pushing them on others or judging them for believing differently.  This is the normal way that we believe things in life, and frankly a belief in gods shouldn’t be different.  This is why I have great respect for some of my theist friends who have said things like “Christianity works for me, but by all means I realize that I could be wrong about it being true and I don’t judge anyone for doubting.”

Just a Very Small Smorgasbord of Different Possibilities

So to me there is certainly no reason for me to take a hard stance on any worldview as a result of these kind of strange events, and given the law of truly large numbers I even see reason to doubt there is meaning behind any of them, but nevertheless my human mind still wonders, and I think about different possibilities involving ultimate questions.  Here’s just a few:

pantheism– Spinoza’s or Einstein’s God, which is very much like pantheism – a popular option that some paradoxically call the “God of the atheists”.  Here’s an interesting talk about Spinoza’s God.  If gods were just described as “entities higher than us” or if a God is described as a “being of infinite attributes” then the universe or whatever else there is that exists seems to fit this.  But as I’ve said before that definition of gods doesn’t seem to fit the traditional understanding of gods as personal thinking agents, so perhaps it just causes confusion in communication.  Just like Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Paul Davies and a lot of other atheist scientists use the word “God” in their popular books and while I’m sure it helps them sell more books, it gets misinterpreted by many.  Either way some of this is just semantics.

– Several gods messing with us – Every once in a while I wonder whether there may be spiritual entities out there somewhere messing with our minds and laughing it up at the scene down here on earth.  Monotheists obviously aren’t very fond of polytheism, but interestingly enough it only takes 2 gods to completely wipe away the problem of suffering or evil.

Transcend– Entirely transcendent gods – perhaps the answer is way above and beyond what our human minds are capable of understanding.  Or perhaps we are byproducts of a universe whose purpose was actually meant for some things or some beings (aliens) way more advanced than ourselves.  Much like we view amoeba or other animals as not being as important a part of the purpose of existence as the conscious, thinking agents that we are, maybe there are other beings out in the universe (or other universes) who would think the same of us if they were ever to meet us.  Perhaps they would think that our inability to obtain certainty in knowledge, our ability to be wrong, and our inability to fit the concept of infinity into our finite brains are surprisingly primitive.  Or perhaps they do something even beyond what we understand as “thinking”.  Something entirely transcendent.  I’ve seen a lot of traditional theists describe the God they believe in as a transcendent concept – something that we humans are not capable of defining or understanding, but yet at the same time they feel comfortable assigning certain attributes to their God.  To me if one or more exists then I’d lean more toward thinking they were entirely transcendent.

– Just to encourage people to think more outside of the box, here’s a link to some videos that Closer to Truth has of philosophers discussing alternative concepts of gods.

Maybe try to come up with your own conceptions and think them through.  Any way to confirm or falsify those ideas?  Any way for them to be empirically tested?  Perhaps one of the biggest drawbacks of all of these ideas is that they are unlikely to be able to be tested.  Much like Max Tegmark’s (MIT professor) multiverse.  Well, more on that another time.

The more I experience life and the more I read studies done relating to human nature, our minds and religion the more I lean toward thinking we live in a godless reality.  But for me I don’t have good reasons to be close-minded about it.

But If You Can’t Disprove It Then Aren’t You Agnostic?

Agnostic

I don’t believe the title of this post is correct, and I’d really like input from all my readers on this topic.

But before I go there I’d like to go over my own views again.  The graphic to the right totally cracked me up and it was one of those “yup, that’s definitely the image I want for this post”.  As I promised I would a couple of times before, I’m turning a bit of a corner now in my series (you know the one which is not very clearly a series and has been going on for 9 months) and I’m going to express the other side of the story, and will share even more on that in my next post.

Now I’ve expressed the kind of labels I think apply to my own viewpoints here and here.  I believe they still fit.  As I mentioned there I don’t see a need to argue semantics and some believe the labels are used as tactical debate moves, but that kind of stuff just irritates me – I’d much rather get at the meat of what’s real rather than win some silly debate.  I was recently invited to a neighborhood evangelistic small group and was asked why I called myself atheist when I wasn’t really that certain about the existence of gods.  My response was something like this: “I know that by strict definitions I am implicitly an atheist, and I also know that I am agnostic as well, and I frankly think possibilian fits me the best, but feel free to call me whatever you like, as long as it’s not a curse (wink) – instead of getting the right label on me what I’d much rather do is get across to you the kind of views I have, and maybe I can learn some from yours as well if I force myself to truly listen.  I am doubtful that the kind of gods that humans have described exist, but my certainty level is not extremely high on that.  I’m not so sure I am a naturalist but it’s probably fair to say I lean in that direction.  I highly value humans and all conscious beings (hide that chicken leg I’m chewing on, gulp).  If someone put a table with all possible worldviews out before me and forced me to bet which was true I’d likely choose one that had naturalistic tones to it (whatever that means), but I do wonder quite a lot about reality and whether there is something deeper to reality that perhaps transcends any experience or description that any human is even capable of describing at this stage in our development.”  Now how’s that for some cool dinner talk?

And then in this post I described some more about my somewhat relaxed view toward all this stuff, and likely confused some of my readers a little.

So a little more on point – agnosticism – I am an agnostic, but I’m not the kind that says “I don’t know and you don’t either.”Agnostic2  My agnosticism is my own and it really just means that I’m not quite so sure of my conclusions.  Perhaps I haven’t read enough or learned enough to realize that I can be sure about this topic.  Perhaps one can be epistemically justified in claiming that gods do not exist.  Which leads to my question.

I’ve seen a lot of theists (and some agnostics) say that that if you cannot disprove something then you should claim agnosticism.  But there are some analogies that kind of fly in the face of this.  The issue is not about 100% certainty – all who are well thought know that.  I’ve given the example of ghosts before.  I don’t believe the arguments for the existence for ghosts is very convincing.  Do I have proof that ghosts do not exist.  Of course I don’t.  Perhaps they exist but for some reason would prefer to only make themselves known to a select few (sound familiar?).  But should I say I’m agnostic about ghosts?  This is not how most people practically communicate their everyday beliefs.  A lot of people simply say they do not believe in ghosts.  And yes I do believe this relates to the burden of proof, but I don’t see it as a burden I need to put on anyone else – for me it is a burden on myself – if I want to say I believe in ghosts then I feel I should have convincing reasons that justify that belief.  If I don’t have them then I feel I am epistemically justified in claiming that I believe ghosts do not exist.

Take the spirit in the closet that my 6 year old son is afraid of.  It’s dark in there at night and he’s seen some movement in there (shadows maybe), and noises as well (shifting toys maybe due to gravity).  But no matter what I tell him he still wants me to make sure the closet door gets closed before he goes to bed.  Can I prove there is no spirit in there?  Actually no – in fact it may very well explain things he has heard and seen.  Ah, but there seem to be some better explanations for those things (at least to me).  But are those really better explanations?  We don’t know do we?  But why would the spirit not come out and simply reveal itself to us, or why can’t we see it when we go look in there.  Well it’s invisible of course, and we should not place any assumptions about the way that spirit thinks – for all we know it has it’s reasons for wanting to remain invisible (sound familiar?).  So then I should be forced to claim agnosticism about that spirit then right?  I’m thinking not.  I’m thinking there is some good epistemic justification there.  Is there the same for more deeper metaphysical questions that may relate to spiritual beings in general?  I’m not so sure.  Perhaps the strange experiences that so many people claim to have really do end up going a bit beyond just anecdotal – more on that in my next post.  And then there’s just the general question of existence itself – deep questions that seem strange to think about sometimes.

Questions: If you are a theist, can you see that there may be cases where things cannot be proven yet we would still say it is fair to claim they do not exist?  What other thoughts do you have on this?  If you are not a theist, do you feel you are epistemically justified in claiming that you know gods do not exist (not 100%, but enough practically speaking), and if so how would you formulate that?

The Unknowable Is Not Worth The Worry

ReligionsToChoose

Has there ever been a time in your life where you’ve thought deeply about ultimate questions?  Whether you call it religion, philosophy, metaphysics, or just important life questions, many (not all) people wonder about these things.  For some it even gets to the point of worry or fear when they begin to realize that they are human and may be wrong about what they believe.  Perhaps it is worry about the afterlife.  Or maybe just general worry about not having the correct answers to ultimate life questions.  For example, Robert Kuhn, host of Closer to Truth, has said in some of his interviews that the question of whether or not God exists has even tormented him.

There were several times in my life that these questions tormented me, but I no longer see any benefit from allowing them to control me.  I still have what I like to call a healthy interest in ultimate questions but I don’t let them get to me in the way that they did years ago.  Two periods in my life stand out very clearly to me – the first was right before I converted to Christianity, and the other was around the time that I left Christianity.  The second period especially was a very dark time for me, sometimes waking up in the middle of the night to a noise fearing that God was about to punish me.

Fear is a natural thing and it saves us many times from getting badly hurt or killed, but it can be distorted and used in the wrong ways if it is applied toward “the unknowable” region of ultimate questions.

While I am not a Buddhist, many times what people of eastern religions say seems much more healthy to me than the more traditional mono-theistic religions.  What Ananda Guruge says in this particular video really resonated with a lot of what I have been thinking for several years now (especially the last part about the man shot with an arrow):

The “parable of the poisoned arrow” has a lot of wisdom in it that I believe we can all learn from.  This link explains it even clearer than the video and it’s worth the read.

My point is not that we should entirely give up on thinking about and exploring uncertain questions – obviously trying to understand the truth about reality is an important part of life and has the obvious benefits of improving our lives the closer we get to the truth about that reality.  That is what scientific, philosophical, and all other fields of investigations are all about.  By all means that should continue, but a healthy balance and understanding of uncertainty is also an important part of that process.

There isn’t too much I can say to people who don’t believe ultimate questions are elusive, that’s just something that some people begin to realize at some point in their lives, and some people never get there.  I’ve shared some of these ideas in the first few posts of my blog – much of it has to do with the realization of our humanity and ability to be wrong, especially as knowledge claims become more and more removed from our sphere of experience and more nebulous (or inscrutable) as far as probability claims might go.  But if you have gotten to that point then it should be very clear that worrying about these elusive questions cannot end up being healthy for your life in any way.  All that it does is physically stress your mind and your body with no productive purpose or conclusion to help it reach to.  In fact in some cases stress can negatively impact our rational decision making process – so in effect allowing these questions to torment you can possibly cause you to form the wrong conclusions about the very questions that you want properly answered.  If you want to learn more about the mind, fear, stress, and ways to overcome fear this post by Victoria N℮üґ☼N☮☂℮ṧ is a great place to start.  Victoria has a lot of information related to the mind and has studied a great deal on the subject.

During that dark period of my life I described before, I searched several different religious traditions, spent a lot of time with several different religious groups, and met weekly with my former pastor to discuss and read many different books related to religious questions.  There came a point where I realized that the torment was hurting me more than helping me so I decided after a year or so to take a break.  I ended up spending several years very rarely reading or thinking about religion.  What is interesting is that instead of that being a dark time in my life, It ended up being filled with light – filled with life, love, friends, family, falling in love, getting married, having children…  It was after that long period that I was able to return to a more balanced, healthy, and much more enjoyable exploration of ultimate questions.

Is the Universe Fine-tuned For Life

fine-tune1The fine-tuning argument is an argument from design or purpose (aka teleological) just like biological irreducible complexity is.

If I was rating arguments for God in previous years I would have initially put this argument at the top of the list, but after doing some more research it has fallen way low on the list and has even fallen below irreducible complexity (which is already low due to the fact that consensus among experts in the relevant fields of study is that irreducible complexity has no basis scientifically.)  It turns out the fine-tuning argument suffers from way more than just the possibility of the multiverse, and I was surprised to find out that some of the most coherent arguments against it are explained by evangelical Christians, and most skeptics are not even aware of those arguments.

First the facts: there are several constants in the equations of physics that if modified by very small amounts would cause a universe that would be dramatically different from our own.  The claim is that those universes would not be life permitting, but there are some who contend that this second claim is not actually a proven fact.  If you want the details for the positive claims you can hear them very clearly in practically any debate on God with William Lane Craig in it.

Do We Know The Probabilities?bell-curves

The first and probably the toughest issue for fine-tuning is explained very well by mathematician William Dembski (a Christian apologist who believes design can be found in biological irreducible complexity):

In layman’s terms, the issue is that even though the constants might sit within a tight range we have no way of figuring out what the probability distribution of those constants are because we don’t have empirical access to universe generators.  As a result we have no way of finding out what the probability is of the constants being in that tight range.  For all we know the probability that they sit in the range they do could be high.  Without access to universe generators we cannot know.  The discussion with Dembski goes longer and he explains himself more – you can see it here.

This along with other probability issues are explained in mathematical terms in this paper by Timothy McGrew, Lydia McGrew, and Eric Vestrup, all of whom are Christian apologists.  Eric Vestrup is a mathematician and the McGrews are epistemology philosophers.  It gets a little technical but overall it’s not too bad, and if you truly want to understand the issues involved with fine-tuning you need to understand their paper.  Lydia McGrew explained some (not all) of the issues described in the paper starting at time “51:00” in this interview with Luke Muelhauser.  Here is a very short clip of Lydia expressing her misgivings about the concession:

A short summary of the paper in my own words:

– Page 203: If we assume a uniform probability distribution, since the range of values for the constants are infinite, no matter how we break them up into pieces the sum will always be infinite.  However, for probabilities to make sense the sum of all possible alternatives must add to 1 (i.e. 100%).  This is called the “normalizability” problem, and it means we have no way of assigning probabilities to the range of the constants.

– Page 205, paragraph 2: The above assumes a uniform distribution, so to get around it we can assign a different kind of probability distribution.  But what distribution do we pick?  This is exactly the problem that Dembski described.  There is currently no valid way to know what to pick.

– Page 206, paragraph 1: Here they allude to important questions related to fine tuning that I have always wondered about.  How do we know that there cannot be other constants or forces in possible universes?  Put another way, we are so fixated on varying the constants that are in the equations we’ve found, but what about varying the equations themselves?  What is the evidence that causes us to think that the constants can be changed while the equations cannot?  It seems like the only reason for this very well may be psychological – the constants seem to be the easiest thing for our brains to ponder varying.  In summary, given this infinite possibility of varying equations, “we may not be in any position to speak of the life-friendliness of universes”.

– Page 207: They essentially say what Dembski said.

This direct quote from the article summarizes things well: “The point of the argument was supposed to be that objective results in modern cosmology virtually compel disbelief in a chance origin of the Universe. If, at a critical point, the argument turns on a subjectively variable sense of which assessments of probabilities are reasonable, a sense that cannot be adjudicated in terms of any more fundamental criteria, then the FTA is effectively forceless. To retreat to the point where the argument rests on unargued intuitions is to deprive it of anything more than devotional significance.”

SC_WLCAn Enlightening Debate

This debate between William Lane Craig and Sean Carroll was very educational:

Craig gives his pitch for fine-tuning starting at 38:48, and Carroll gives his response at 54:17.  It comes up several other times in the debate (at 1:12:12, 1:21:47, 1:42:31, and 2:35:28).  Here are some issues that Carroll brings up:

– The conditions under which life can exist, and what life is, have not been clearly defined enough to prove the fine-tuning argument.  While our human form of life may not be common after varying parameters, some kind of conscious minds could exist in many other different universes.  While he may very well have a point I believe he is currently in the minority on this point, perhaps because varying some of the parameters often results in very short-lived universes not allowing for complex beings to arise.  I’m not sure about this one, but I think it’s at least valid to question how thoroughly this has been defined.

– The next objection is a bit more philosophical in nature and while I find it a bit confusing to think through it may very well be a valid objection.  Carroll says: “in theism life is not purely physical, it’s not purely a collection of atoms doing things like it is in naturalism.  I would think that no matter what the atoms were doing God could still create life.  God doesn’t care what the mass of the electron is, He can do what he wants.”  (please don’t say something silly like “I thought Sean didn’t believe in God, but now he is talking about Him”).  This is an interesting conundrum for the fine tuning argument itself.  Theism posits a certain view of God, but then the argument doesn’t seem consistent with that view.  Sean’s final statement here may also shed some light on this: “the only framework in which you can honestly say that the physical parameters of the universe must take on certain values in order for life to exist is naturalism.”  I’d like to add here that Lydia McGrew also mentions this as an issue in her interview with Luke Muelhauser (above), and apologist Hans Halvorson (see link below) concedes it as well in his debate with Carroll.

– The third objection is more technical and I believe is a valid one: the “apparent” fine-tuning of some constants actually disappear on closer inspection.  The example Carroll gives is the common example of the early expansion rate of the universe.  Claimed to be fine-tuned to 1 part in 1060.  But after doing a correct, rigorous derivation of the probability using the equations of general relativity you find that the probability is 1.  You can read further on this example here.  Craig used to use this example in his debates and took Hawking’s statements out of context.  To be fair he has corrected himself and no longer does that.  It’s important to keep in mind the following statement from Carroll to get some balance to this objection: “I can’t say that all parameters fit into that paradigm, but until we know the answer we can’t claim that they’re definitely fine-tuned.”  The debate over this objection that I’ve seen usually lies in questioning that last sentence of Carroll’s – the claim is that many cosmologists have thrown their hands up at this point and given up on getting answers that explain the apparent fine-tuning of many of the constants.  A lot of cosmologists do seem to indicate this but I’ve seen some interviewed who have not given up.  Either way though one could argue that this is still a God of the gaps argument because as we’ve seen many times in the past, not having answers to tough problems does not mean they are unsolvable with naturalistic explanations.

– 4th is the most common explanation among naturalists – the multiverse.  I think this is a perfectly valid objection to fine-tuning and none of the responses to it have moved me.  The idea is that there are many universes out there with many different constants and we just happen to be living in one of them.  The perfect analogy is that we used to think the conditions of our planet were finely tuned for life to exist, but once we became aware that there are tons of planets in the universe this conundrum was gone.  This is known as an “observer selection effect”.  Craig’s response is that universes with boltzmann brains are more likely than universes with embodied living beings, so he claims that means the observer selection effect is nullified.  But it is still agreed that with a multiverse there could be universes that have embodied living beings, and so the selection effect is still valid – we happen to be in one of those universes.  Just because there are lots of other universes with other types of observers doesn’t nullify that.  Also, Craig seems to misrepresent the hypothesis by saying “in order to rescue the alternative of chance it’s proponents have therefore been forced to adopt the hypothesis that there exists a … multiverse” (40:47), and then “now comes the key move” – as if it’s some sort of tactic.  My understanding is that the multiverse is actually a prediction of physical theories (mainly inflation).  And as I’ve seen written by some cosmologists, this is “indirect” evidence for the multiverse.  The hypothesis is not created as a “rescue” for an objection to fine-tuning.  And frankly even if it was I don’t see why that would really be an issue anyway.  This could be a valid hypothesis on it’s own.  Where is the need to add ideas of supernatural when cosmologists have never had any confirmed empirical evidence for that?  Carroll responds to other objections to the multiverse here.

– His last objection is that even if we grant that the constants are fine-tuned theism is a poor explanation.  I’ve gone way too long, so you can watch at (59:38).

Links to More Objections

– Hans Halvorson (Christian apologist) explains why he agrees with Carroll that the fine-tuning argument is not convincing – at time 28:41 in their debate.  It’s worth a listen.

– While inconclusive, Don Page (an evangelical Christian) has a paper explaining that different values of the cosmological constant would have produced universes which were way more life permitting than the one we are in.  It is at least another hint at the fact that the constants may not be tuned for life.

Keith Parsons describes a good philosophical point that comes up a lot.  It is the same objection that I have to the Cosmological Argument (mentioned here) and I haven’t figured out a good reason why the objection does not make sense.

– This is a link to a long list of objections to fine-tuning which is worth looking over.  It is important to note that the strength of these objections span the map and several of them are very poor.

Links in Support of Fine Tuning

Luke Barnes (agnostic who who seems to lean toward theism) is one of the better expositors for fine-tuning.  You can also listen to an interview he had with Luke Muehlhauser here.

Robbin Collins is another educated proponent for fine-tuning.  His form of the argument is more polished than William Lane Craig’s but it’s also a weaker form of the argument.

I give more links in support as well as criticism of the argument on my companion page.

Summary

Given all of the issues, some of the strongest of which are even brought forth by theists, the fine-tuning argument does not look to me like a very convincing argument.  And it surely cannot be claimed that those skeptical of it are doing so only because they don’t want to believe in God.  While I would never say that everyone should give up trying to find out if this argument can really fly (certainly further research and study could possibly resolve objections), it seems to me that this one is a bit of a dead-end.  On my companion page to fine-tuning I give references both for and against the argument so people can research further to try to form their own conclusions.

Afterlife Debate Review

Debate Results

First a copy of the debate results from Sean Carroll’s post-debate review (click on images to enlarge):

death-crosstabsdeath-piesThe winner was the team whose numbers changed the most and the first chart shows that Carroll/Novella won.  The second chart is just interesting because it shows that they won not by changing minds of the undecided, but rather more people who started out “For” the proposition changed their minds to be “Against.”

My Own Views

As far as my own views go, I’m doubtful that there is life after death but not with very high confidence because while I have read more about it than the average person I still am a layperson to the topic.  At any rate while the topic is certainly of interest to me I definitely believe that it is not worth worrying about.  No need to worry about things that are very uncertain and even unlikely.  But if science can shed light on this question then I feel it is worth the effort, so I was very glad to see this debate.

I was hoping for more references to controlled experiments that have been done related to the topic, but there was only generalities and not a lot of specifics in this debate which is kind of par for the course in public debates.  I was definitely not persuaded by the “For” team.  In my opinion Alexander and Moody did a poor job and it was mainly mistakes in strategy.  The “Against” side did better but again I was hoping for more specifics so I wasn’t moved dramatically.

Opening Statements

Alexander’s main thrust throughout the entire debate was the story of his own NDE.  In fact, that was practically his entire opening statement.  Only in the last 30 seconds did he add that he has read and heard of many NDE stories and has found that the similarities far outweigh the differences.  I thought it was a mistake to base most of his case on an anecdotal story.

Carroll’s opening statement was typical of his style – a non-technical Bayesian type approach detailing what we would expect if there was an afterlife and what we would expect if there wasn’t and then comparing those expectations to what we all see.  There was nothing earth shattering there.  All points that most people like myself are familiar with but a lot of people probably don’t systematically list them out.  A very important and common point that he brought up was that the NDE stories tend to match with the cultural biases of the individual (Christians see Jesus, Hindus see Hindu gods, a young girl met Santa).

Moody’s opening statement and his entire strategy was a poor choice in my mind.  His main argument was that this is not a scientific question, but rather that critical thinking and logic will solve this problem.  He also conceded that parapsychology is a pseudo-science.  Obviously I’m all for critical thinking but when it comes to questions that involve evidence that can be analyzed, logic alone cannot make a strong case.  Nevertheless Moody did contribute a little more later in the debate.  He also mentioned the common features of NDE’s (feeling outside of the body, and seeing a light, a panoramic view of life and deceased loved ones), and further added that sometimes bystanders of dying loved ones have identical experiences.  More on this later.

Novella’s opening statement and entire performance was the best of the four.  He claimed that science is very sure that mind is a process of the brain.  (Of course anyone can claim whatever they want, and it would be nice to see polling on this but I don’t anticipate that happening).  He then went on to form a hypothesis that “mind is entirely the brain”, and listed what we would expect if that were the case: (1) if we change the brain then the mind will change, (2) if we damage the brain then the mind would be damaged, (3) if we turn off the brain then the mind will turn off.  He didn’t detail any experiments showing that these things have been demonstrated but I don’t believe it is hard to find data to back these statements.

As far as (3), I was immediately reminded of my “conscious sedation” in my outpatient surgeries.  After the surgeries I had absolutely no memory of what had happened.  Where was my “soul” during that period?  Sure enough doctors have drugs that interact physically with our brains that can “turn them off”, and they are utilized daily.

Then Novella went on to talk about natural explanations for NDE’s:  there can still be brain activity during a coma, vivid memories could form while coming out of a coma, reality module in our brain could be malfunctioning.  Finally, an important point for me was the claim that every element of an NDE can be duplicated with drugs, anoxia, lack of blood-flow, or by turning off circuits in the brain (later he mentioned 2 others: hypotension and electromagnetic brain stimulation).

Highlights in the Exchange

The rest of the debate was interactive followed by short closing statements.  Here are some highlights:

  1. (48:37) Moody explained the “mind body problem”, mentioned epiphenomenalism, and then actually said “my answer is, I don’t know”.  (!!)
  2. (49:40) An interesting exchange between Novella and Alexander ensued for a while:
    1. Alexander asserted that his neocortex was non-functional during his NDE and that there were memories he had that he knew had to have happened during that period.  I agree with Novella that there is no way that he could tell that those memories formed during that period.  They could have very well have been formed in recovery.  A very interesting point Novella made was that the parts of the brain that construct our sense of time could also have been malfunctioning.  Novella also noted that no fMRI, Petscan or EEG was taken to document zero brain activity during the coma.
    2. (53:35) Alexander noted that there are cases of people getting information they could not have gotten by any natural means.  Novella’s response was clear-cut: the cases he has read like this are just like cold readings from psychics, and are not controlled experiments.  He also mentioned there are attempts at controlled experiments that have failed; e.g. cards on a shelf only viewable if the patient was actually floating above – “and by the way, we can make you float above your body!”.
  3. (57:04) Moody claims respect for physics but says it doesn’t rule out another dimension, and that it is conceivable.  Carroll’s response at 58:00 is spot on, stating that it is conceivable that angels are in the moon guiding it around the earth, but we don’t take that seriously as an idea because there is no need or evidence for it.  Moody also ends up conceding the falsifiability problem.
  4. (1:00:13) Great quote from moderator to Moody: “What you’re saying sort of reminds me of the editorial to Virginia about Santa Claus written in the 19th century in which Frank Church who wrote this editorial said to the little girl, ‘do you see fairies dancing on the front lawn, no of course you don’t but that doesn’t mean that they’re not there'”.  That link is well worth the read by the way.
  5. (1:01:12) Moody describes a story of a dying patient (from a car accident), his doctor, and scrub nurse all having similar feelings of the presence of the patient’s dead wife (who died in the car accident).  It’s these kinds of stories that is at the heart of the whole afterlife topic so it’s worth listening to.  While some people have their beliefs because of indoctrination, there are definitely others who honestly believe because they think these stories are good evidence for the afterlife.
    1. Another quote from the moderator: “we are talking about ghosts now, and I’m sorry that sounded pejorative but we are talking about something that a lot of people would challenge as incredibly implausible…”  This is exactly the kind of point I’ve tried to make before – why are skeptics clearly judged for doubting afterlife and gods when many people find it quite acceptable to doubt the existence of ghosts?  I believe it’s because historically we’ve gotten morality all wrapped up in the question of afterlife and gods.  I don’t believe they need to be wrapped up and there are certainly many eastern religions and liberal western ones that would agree.
    2. Novella said that these stories could be constructed after the fact and that we have this similar level of evidence for UFO’s, bigfoot, and many other paranormal phenomena.  To be consistent you would have to accept all of those if you accept this kind of evidence for the afterlife.  This is a good point, but I’m not sure it’s that easy to clearly compare the level of evidence between all of these types of claims.
  6. (1:04:28) Discussion about the fact that scientists don’t understand the mechanism by which the physical brain creates consciousness.  I appreciate this mystery as well, but I don’t believe it a strong case for the afterlife.
  7. (1:12:15) I was glad to hear from Novella that there are currently some ongoing bigger controlled experiments to test out remote viewing, but no references.
  8. (1:21:30) Telepathy, remote viewing, OBE’s, past life memories:
    1. Novella: 100 years of parapsychology hasn’t come up with compelling evidence.  He didn’t give specifics, but I think the Stargate Project is relevant here.
    2. Alexander: evidence is overwhelming, and he gave 2 references: Irreducible Mind, and The Afterlife Experiments.  Novella strongly questioned the methodology of the second and said the writer allowed himself to be bamboozled.
  9. doh(1:26:27) Alexander saved the best for last.  A clear distortion of Carl Sagan’s views on past life memories in children.  Alexander said: “Carl Sagan admitted that past life memories in children, the evidence for that is overwhelming…he said that in his book The Demon-Haunted World on page 302; he says exactly that, {applause} period.” -> well I own the book and this is what was written: “At the time of writing there are 3 claims in the ESP field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study: (1) that by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generators in computers; (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images “projected” at them; and (3) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation.  I pick these claims not because I think they’re likely to be valid (I don’t), but as examples of contentions that might be true.  The last three have at least some, although still dubious, experimental support.  Of course, I could be wrong.” [bolding is my own, but italics is not]  Alexander was clearly stretching the quote beyond reasonable on this one – apropos in my mind, because it is a hint at the kinds of things that could be going on with some of these “beyond coincidental” stories.  Also apropos is the second part of Sagan’s book title: “Science as a Candle in the Dark”.

Summary

I actually don’t judge others for having a difficult time accepting that some of these surprisingly coincidental stories don’t have some “higher” explanation to them, but I don’t appreciate the lack of respect toward skeptics who don’t believe that these stories rise to an acceptable level of evidence – because they believe they are being consistent with the expectations of evidence in other fields of investigation.  My own educated guess is that Carroll and Novella are correct that all of these claims only rise to the level of anecdotal and pseudo-scientific, and that once a sufficient amount of scientific experiments are performed in this arena, consciousness is better understood, and the more the public is educated on that, belief in afterlife will slowly fade away much like alchemy, astrology, and young earth creationism.